It is easy to be cynical about Gordon Brown's sudden enthusiasm for electoral reform. More than 12 years after Labour came to power with a huge majority and a manifesto pledge to hold a referendum, the Prime Minister has finally grasped the nettle just weeks before a general election his party is forecast to lose. A vote in Parliament on holding a referendum is planned for next week and the referendum itself, on the introduction of an "alternative vote" system, could be held by the end of October, 2011. Why, after all this time, the rush?
The announcement positively invited scornful repartee from the Opposition – which duly obliged. The Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman, Chris Huhne, described it as evidence of a "death-bed conversion from a party facing defeat" at the election. In fact, that might be too generous. It smacks rather of Labour's faint hope that it might retain just enough seats to produce a hung Parliament, and if that happens, then the question of forming a coalition rears its head. Talk of electoral reform – as Tony Blair understood all those years ago – has a special appeal for the Liberal Democrats, whose support could then be crucial. Their backing proved unnecessary for Labour in 1997; in 2010 it could be quite different.
So there is ample room for cynicism. For those, such as this newspaper, who have long campaigned for electoral reform, there is also room for disappointment. The "alternative vote" system, as used in Australia, is electoral reform at its most minimal. It requires voters to rank the candidates in order of preference, and – if none achieves more than 50 per cent – the votes of the least popular candidate are redistributed, until one candidate reaches that proportion.
The advantage over the present system is that all elected MPs would, by hook or by crook, have received a majority. Under the present, first past the post system, an MP can be elected with barely one third of the votes cast. This may be one reason why the UK electorate seems so disenchanted with the democratic process. Or that is what Mr Brown appears to think.
But this reform would not be proportional representation, and it would not – at least initially – solve one of the chief problems at present, which is the discrepancy between the distribution of votes cast and the distribution of seats in Parliament. The Liberal Democrats suffer a particular disadvantage here, and – unless the alternative vote system changed voters' behaviour, which is not impossible, but not guaranteed – neither they nor other smaller parties would necessarily gain. Indeed, the main beneficiary of the change might well be Labour, with the Conservatives emerging the chief losers.
Yet some reform is surely better than none. The head of the Electoral Reform Society described it yesterday as "not a final destination", but "a stepping stone". We agree. By calling for a vote in this Parliament, Mr Brown has put the subject back on to the political agenda, which is to be welcomed as a step forward, not back.
Even if the best possible gloss is put on the proposed change, however, it will not of itself remedy the main defect of our democracy at present, which is the widespread contempt in which politics and politicians are held, especially since the MPs' expenses scandal. In his speech yesterday, Mr Brown also spoke of giving voters more opportunities to participate in politics and returning power to the people. This is right, but it will take a change of culture rather than a rushed debate about an "alternative vote".
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